American Chibi, the Uncanny Valley, and the Grotesque Genius of Astro City

You ever heard the term “uncanny valley”? It’s generally used to describe animated computer renderings of humans that achieve an amount of realism that just falls short of believable, causing people to find it revolting. The arch example of this is probably Tom Hanks’ animated vehicle The Polar Express, but there are many others to be found. But not generally in comics*, which tend to conform to house styles or individual artist styles, and the 2-D probably helps prevent even the most realistically rendered art from approaching uncanny valley territory. But then Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson, in the new iteration of their classic title Astro City #1, had to introduce their newest hero “American Chibi.” And we all say “yuck.” Because it works.

American Chibi is a gross new character from Busiek and Anderson's Astro City.
American Chibi is a gross new character from Busiek and Anderson’s Astro City.

“Chibi” generally refers to the Manga/Anime art style of drawing characters as childlike, with comparatively huge heads and moon-sized eyes (the term, whether right or wrong, is generally conflated with the “super deformed” art style, and that’s how we mean it here). Putting many such rendered characters together in a sequential art series isn’t by any means disturbing. But American Chibi in Astro City is sort of semi-realistically person with chibi proportions and a woman’s build (boobs**, etc.). Visually, she’s kind of like a combo of Ms. Marvel (she’s got the sash), Mr. Mxyzptlk, Skyman (yes, I am going with deep cuts here***), and, umm, something out of Hello Kitty. It’s weird, and would even be weird were all the book’s characters to look like this. But when you see American Chibi flying next to the properly proportioned (Superman analog) hero The Samaritan, the contrast between the two is simply gross. And clever and funny.

I mean, I’m a sucker for the old stories where the cartoony Captain Carrot is side-by-side with the classically rendered Superman; it’s fun to think of people from different physical realities being in the same sandbox. American Chibi takes it to a whole new, confusing and hilarious level. And the narrator’s surmising that American Chibi may be a “35-year-old anime fan who got his heart’s desire” delightfully amps up that confusion.

Anyway, all my yammer-yammer does it no justice; look for yourself at the fine art by Brent Anderson above and below. (And read the book! Astro City has a nice long backlog and it’s largely great!)

American Chibi is a gross new character from Busiek and Anderson's Astro City.
American Chibi is a gross new character from Busiek and Anderson’s Astro City.

*Being an old man, I had the chance to purchase “Batman: Digital Justice” when it came out — which was pretty atrocious, but the Uncanny Valley effect was only part of it.
**Boobs on a child, or one who appears to be a child, is just all kinds of wrong, even without the grotesquely oversized noggin.
***I will never pass up a chance for a callback to Infinity Inc, y’all.

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